Murakami Haruki’s Egg-Versus-Wall Metaphor and Hong Kong’s Pro-democracy Movements

Michael Tsang is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow based at the School of Modern Languages at Newcastle University. Prior to this appointment he was an Research Associate on the AHRC-funded project, 'Gendering Murakami Haruki', hosted at the same school. He received his doctorate in English and Comparative Literary Studies from the University of Warwick, and his MPhil in Gender Studies and BA in English from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

This article examines a transnational connection between literature and politics, specifically, how the egg-versus-wall metaphor by the Japanese author Murakami Haruki has been appropriated in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, particularly the 2014 Umbrella Movement and onwards. During his acceptance speech at the 2009 Jerusalem Prize on the Freedom of the Individual in Society, Murakami shared his philosophy of novel-writing: “Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg […] no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg.” He then gave the wall a name: “the System”, which separates human beings from one another and causes us to kill each other coldly and efficiently. 

The egg-versus-wall metaphor had a malleability that allowed Hong Kong protestors to project their own interpretation and identify themselves as eggs and the Hong Kong and Chinese governments as the wall. Of course, the fact that Murakami voiced his explicit support to Hong Kong on two occasions helped: the first in another of his acceptance speech in November 2014, and the second in his reply to a letter from a Hong Kong fan called Miffy in March 2015.

Image with caption “When Eggs Win Over the High Wall”, from Instagram @jeffcheng260

Discourse analysis reveals several main appropriation patterns on how the egg-versus-wall metaphor was mentioned and discussed by Hongkongers. Moreover, these patterns expose deep riffs between the pro-establishment and pro-democracy camps, and within the latter, between moderate and radical protestors that have been developing even before the Umbrella Movement. Some Hong Kong critics positively imagine the egg as an intermediary form of life, and even invent new metaphors that specify in what form the egg will become. For example, the political critic Joseph Lian seems to be sympathetic to radical ideas when he writes in this commentary: “the ‘eggs’ must make themselves tougher, so that defeat is not the only awaiting fate when clashing with the wall. Now, whether they are to become ‘bricks,’ or ‘wood blocks’ (on the soft side), or even ‘rocks’ (on the hard side), is something to be discussed among social activists widely". However, other, especially pro-establishment, commentators tend to misread the ontology of Murakami’s metaphor. Whereas Murakami clearly states that the wall is a system rather than individuals, Hon-kuen Ho in this online article writes: “When the heads of government departments condescended to engage in a serious discussion with the student [protesters], only to be shouted at and reprimanded by “the eggs” relentlessly—how does such a weak government deserve to be determined by Mr. Murakami as ‘the wall’?” Here, Ho attempts to whitewash government officials by portraying them as victims to student violence in order to nullify the association that the wall refers to the political establishment, but he lacks the careful understanding that for Murakami, the wall is always metonymic to the abstract power and systems within the establishment, not to people and their behaviour.

Remarkably, then, what started out as a Japanese novelist’s literary philosophy has been exported and drawn upon as inspiration for actual political action in a foreign context such as Hong Kong. Not only is it imperative to always situate Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movements within a larger context of global flow of political praxis and cultural ideas, we also ought to study the ways in which these ideas and praxis have evolved specifically to the new contexts.

Since the publication of this chapter in 2016, Murakami’s metaphor has continued to be evoked in social movements, most recently in the ongoing anti-extradition protest in Hong Kong. After a million protestors marched against the extradition bill on 9 June 2019, a Chinese-language Facebook fanpage of Murakami posted a quote from the writer’s 2015 encouragement to the Hong Kong girl Miffy. Published in July by Oxford University Press, a new book of essays by Professor Chow Po Chung of the Chinese University of Hong Kong also contains reflections on Murakami’s egg metaphor. As accusations surfaced condemning the use of radical protest methods, an article in The Stand News on 13 November reminded us of Murakami’s stance of standing with the eggs “no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg”. Finally, right before the District Council Election on 24 November, a Hong Kong illustrator called on voters to cast their ballots by drawing an illustration showing a cartoon egg voting with the words “When Eggs Win Over the High Wall” (see above). Once again, we see how Murakami’s metaphor is used for justifying both radical (as in the Stand News article) and moderate (voting in elections) means of protest. These examples show that Murakami’s metaphor remains to be an inspiration to protestors in Hong Kong, and his encouragement will continue to be cited in difficult times.